London's Northern Line: Telling the Jewish Stories

Theresa May, the former prime minister of the UK, was in Kosher Kingdom the other day. Unless she was buying her cholent for Shabbat, I presume she was visiting London’s largest kosher supermarket to campaign for Mike Freer, the Conservative Party Member of Parliament who has represented Finchley and Golders Green since 2010 and is working hard to retain his seat in the upcoming UK elections.

Kosher Kingdom is just near Brent Cross, a train stop on the Northern Line, part of London’s famous Tube. The same Northern Line that found international fame last Friday for news that a young Muslim woman, Asma Shuweikh, travelling on the Northern Line came to the defence of a kippah-wearing Jewish man and his two young sons as they were subjected to a tirade of anti-Semitic abuse. Captured on film by another passenger, the [un-named] Jewish man stayed calm and tried to distract his children, while Asma tried to reason with the offender.

The Northern Line is more that the sum of its stations. Its psycho-geography tells the story of the changing face of North-West London’s Jewish community.

About 55,000 Jews live in Barnet, the municipality that covers a large part of the Northern Line before it hits central London – that’s 20 percent of the Jews in the UK, who form just .5% of the UK population, the fifth largest religious community after Christian, Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs.  [Check out JPR for more detailed data.] It has two termini – one starts in Edgware, a thriving Jewish community with an increasing number of Haredi shuls and schools. Young well-dressed clean-shaved budding actuaries and lawyers take their seat, open their Gemara and start their day learning on the Tube. They wear black crotched kippot, nestled as inconspicuously as possible, into their dark hair. A smaller number of b’sheitled women are also on the train and are praying from a prayer book, or less conspicuously from their iPhones. It’s the micro-lip movements that give it away, and if I didn’t know better, might suspect a mental health issue.

The train picks up more passengers at Burnt Oak and Colindale – the middle-class Indian professionals and Muslim hijabis heading to central London – and comes into Brent Cross. This is my stop, and I know just where to stand to maximize my chance of getting a seat, albeit if it’s 7:32 a.m., I’m probably too late. There’s an older, well-known lawyer I recognize from the area – on Shabbat, he’s in full Hasidic garb with a shtreimel, but on a regular morning, he’s in a suit and tie with a bare head. I wonder if he’s jealous of the younger generation who have the legal rights, and the self-confidence, to blatantly display their religious identity.

Golders Green station is next, where young religious boys have gathered to ride together to City of London Boys school, a prestigious, multi-faith and academic school that accommodates students who leave early for Shabbat and erects a sukkah on school grounds. Onto Hampstead and Belsize Park, well-heeled neighbourhoods with many Jewish residents. From Chalk Farm station, it’s a short walk to South Hampstead Synagogue which recently completed a multi-million pound renovation and announced that constructing an eruv was approved by their local council – a boon for a community with a lot of young families.

It’s then a quick ride to Camden Town, a busy underground intersection where you can swap train lines. The other branch of the Northern Line started in High Barnet and traveled through the densely Jewish neighbourhood of Finchley, Margaret Thatcher’s old stomping ground, tony Highgate and gentrified Kentish Town. Both branches now converge onto Camden Town, known for its famous market, overflowing with food, clothes and overpriced kitsch. It is less well known for the Jewish Museum which hosts an impressive array of exhibitions and welcomes thousands of non-Jewish school children to learn about Jewish history and culture.

From Camden, it’s one stop to bustling Euston Station and I get off, beat my way through the crowds, swap platforms and jostle for a place on the Victoria Line.

It’s three stops to Green Park where I get off and it’s a world away from der heim for this is the stop for Buckingham Place, Fortnum and Mason and a host of other posh places that remind me, an Australian-born daughter of Holocaust survivors, that I will never really belong here.

From the other direction, the Victoria and Piccadilly lines bring its passengers from Stamford Hill, where the majority of London’s Charedi and Chassidic community lives. If I’m coming into the office later in the day, I often see families huddled together, speaking Yiddish, as they make their way out of the station, laden with paraphernalia hanging off their children’s buggies. More than once I’ve been asked for directions to see ‘de Qveen Palace’ and I point them in the right direction. They come from the area where the Jewish median age is 0 – 4, in stark contrast to the Jews in the seaside resort of Bournemouth, 110 miles away, where the median age is 75-79 years.

At the end of the day, it’s the same procedure in reverse, except for these wintry Fridays, when Shabbat starts before 4 p.m., and observant Jews across London are wondering just how early they can leave work. We have to factor in train delays and diversions for this is not Switzerland. But increasingly, we also have to factor in the potential for a bomb and the fear of an attack. Unfortunately, we know that anti-Semitic attacks are common and the number of reported incidents has increased. The Community Security Trust recorded 892 anti-Semitic incidents across the United Kingdom in the first six months of 2019, which is the highest ever total that CST has recorded in the January-June period of any year and is a 10% rise from the 810 anti-Semitic incidents recorded in the first six months of 2018.

Last Friday’s anti-Semitic attack captured the nation’s attention for it suited the ‘feel-good’ narrative arc that we’re so desperate for in our troubled times.

Luckily for the media, it was filmed by another passenger, and in one foul swoop, the news had cast the ‘good Muslim’ ‘the deranged black man’ and the ‘helpless Jew’ – it’s the Hollywood story of how one person can make a difference and if only we would all be as brave as this Muslim mother [who of course, should be applauded] then the world would be a better place. If only that were true. Some may say I’m just too jaded and cynical.

Nevertheless, one thing is certain: Asma Shuweikh would be welcome at Kosher Kingdom any day.

[Published November 24, 2019]